Friday, April 25, 2014

Montage # 153 – Eine Faust-Symphonie

As of  May 23, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:


At their first meeting, the day before the premiere of the Symphonie fantastique, Berlioz had introduced Liszt to Part I of Goethe's Faust, sparking a potent recognition of that "something in the air" that would eventually issue in several of Liszt's most ambitious, enduring, and popular works. The Piano Sonata (S. 178) is plausibly thought to embody a Faustian program, while the character portraits of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles make up the sprawling Eine Faust Symphonie (S. 108), and Liszt composed and orchestrated—with dazzling virtuosity—Episodes from Lenau's Faust. (S. 110)

It was not until he heard an 1852 performance of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust that he was inspired to begin serious work on what was to become his Faust Symphony. The first version of the work (1854), for a small orchestra without brass, was substantially shorter than its final form. Over the next three years, Liszt expanded the symphony, eventually adding the final chorus in 1857.

Unlike the more episodic and narrative Dante Symphony (S. 109), the Faust Symphony is structured along more purely musical lines. Each of its three movements is a character portrai  - together, they were regarded by Liszt as three of his finest tone poems.

The first movement, "Faust," is cast as a sonata-allegro. Faust's theme, consisting of broken augmented triads, uses all 12 tones of the chromatic scale, anticipating the rise of twelve-tone and other atonal techniques that were still decades in the future. In spite of the extreme economy of its material, the movement is nearly 30 minutes in duration, demonstrating Liszt's process of thematic transformation as it spans a remarkable variety of moods that evoke Faust's complex character.

"Gretchen," is slow, meditative and delicately scored. Liszt here continues the process of thematic transformation with material derived from the previous movement. Finally, in keeping with the negative and mocking character “Mephistopheles” is a grotesque parody of the first and uses only one new theme, appropriately borrowed from Liszt's own Malédiction, S. 121.

Liszt added the choral ending to the work only after having completed the Dante Symphony, which likewise has this feature. In the Faust Symphony, the text is the Chorus mysticus which ends Part II of the play.

Hungarian conductor Antal Doráti (1906 –1988) conducts today’s performance. Over the course of his career Doráti made over 600 recordings, making him one of the most recorded conductors of the Stereo era – HMV, RCA, Mefcury, London/Decca and Philips are some of the labels for whom he made recordings. Who hasn’t heard his London Phase 4 recording of Tchaikovsky's "1812" Overture (featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra) with real cannons, brass band, and church bells?

Antal Dorati’s thrillingly demonic live traversal of Liszt’s orchestral masterpiece is often superb. Each of the three protagonists is vividly portrayed; orchestral playing is highly charged, yet scrupulously disciplined. Like Solti, Dorati lets the Hungarian in him take over when it comes to reading Liszt’s complex and often emotion-packed tone poems. The first-generation digital recording is brash and top-heavy, while still worthwhile and highly enjoyable.

I think you will love this music too!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Montage # 152 – Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité

As of  May 16, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:

For our Good Friday podcast, I chose to program a modern piece of organ music: Olivier Messiaen’s Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité. The work's title is also loaded wit elements quite relevan to the composer: his spiritual nature, the chrch and organ that he was associate with for 60 years, and the number 3...

The lightly veiled reference to the Paris Church of the Trinity is important; it is there that Mesiaen explored, developed and composed the manyu intricate elements of this composition, and where he gave the first provate performance in 1971. He later gave the first public  performance at the Basillica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC on March 20, 1972.

Be warned: this is not your typical piece of organ music – it is modern, rythmically complex and at times hard to grasp… The Méditations contain virtually all of the touchstones of Messiaen's compositional style, including the use of modes, plainsong, birdsong, Hindu and Greek rhythms, careful coloration, and the religious symbolism of the number three, resulting in the work's nine-movement structure.

For Messiaen, music was a kind of language, one that could be made equivalent to spoken language. At the time of the Méditations, Messiaen invented a system, a "communicable language" in which notes corresponded to individual letters of the alphabet, and specific motives were connected to certain verbs and nouns. This language makes its appearance in parts of the Méditations. Though not really comprehensible to the listener it is nonetheless important to note, for it exemplifies the composer's fascination with numbers and patterns and with the notion of communicating a universal message.

For an exhaustive and learned discussion on the subject, including specific notations and examples, please refer to Olivier Messiaen's System of Signs: Notes Towards Understanding His Music by Andrew Shenton (Google Books reference:

The work is concerned thematically with the Trinity, and in exploring this theme Messiaen juxtaposes unaltered Gregorian chant melodies and moments of suspended time with virtuosic, jubilant, rhythmically vivacious passages. Messiaen “meditates” on the following words:

Méditation I :« Le Père des étoiles » (The Father of the Stars)
Méditation II :« Dieu est Saint » (God is Holy)
Méditation III  « La relation réelle en Dieu est réellement identique à l'essence » (The true relationship with God is the same as the Essence)
Méditation IV :« Dieu est » (God is)
Méditation V :« Dieu est immense », « Dieu est éternel », « Dieu est immuable », « le Souffle de l'Esprit », « Dieu le Père tout-puissant », « Notre Père », « Dieu est amour » (God is immense, eternal, immutable. The gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Almighty, Our Father, God is Love)
Méditation VI :« Dans le Verbe était la Vie et la Vie était la Lumière... » [Jn, 1 4] (God is Life and Life is Light)
Méditation VII :« Le Père et le Fils aiment, par le Saint-Esprit, eux-mêmes et nous » (The Father and Son love themselves and us, through the Holy Spirit)
Méditation VIII :« Dieu est simple », «Les Trois sont Un » (God is simple, three in one.)
Méditation IX :« Je suis Celui qui suis » [Exodus, 3:14] (I am He who is)

I think you will love this music too!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bruckner's Fifth

This is my Tuesday Blog post from April 15, 2014.

Anton Bruckner’s Symphony no. 5 was written at a time of much trouble and disillusionment un the composer's life - it is not outwardly a work of storm and stress, yet is one of his most contrapuntally intricate works. The symphony is sometimes referred to as "Tragic", or "Church of Faith". Three of its four movements (1, 2 and 4) begin with pizzicato strings, hence its other nickname, “the Pizzicato Symphony”. The pizzicato figures are symmetrical, in the sense that the outer movements share one figure while the middle movements share a different figure.

Composed between 1875–1876, with a few minor changes over the next few years, it received its first orchestral performance in Graz on 8 April 1894 (Bruckner was sick and unable to attend: he never heard this symphony performed by an orchestra). It was dedicated to Karl von Stremayr, minister of education in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

To many people unfamiliar with the inner-structure of Bruckner’s symphonies, they all seem to feel and sound alike with an ethereal feeling to them. That’s probably because, except the Symphony No. 1, they begin with sections that are like introductions "in-tempo", easing into the main material like the opening of Beethoven's Ninth. The “tragic” symphony is the only one of Bruckner's nine that begins with a slow introduction. 

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954) is a historic figure among German conductors of his time, whose legacy post-Nazi Germany is somewhat unclear, depending on which narrative you happen to subscribe.

Formed as a composer and a conductor, Furtwängler's pre-1920 positions took him to Breslau, Lübeck, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Vienna. At the age of 35, the conductor took the baton at the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic and concurrently held the same position at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he remained until 1928. Furtwängler led the New York Philharmonic from 1927 to 1929, but eventually left to concentrate his career in Europe: it was during those years that Furtwängler was appointed music director of the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as holding various posts with the Bayreuth and Salzburg festivals (1931-1932) and the Berlin State Opera (1933).

When the Nazis came into power in 1933, Furtwängler strongly and publicly opposed the Nazi agenda, despite pride in his German heritage, and refused to give the Nazi salute, even in Hitler's presence. In 1934, when Hindemith's Mathis de Maler was banned by the Nazi party, Furtwängler unilaterally resigned from all of his posts, aided numerous Jewish musicians under Nazi persecution, and refused to conduct in Nazi-occupied areas. Furtwängler eventually fled to Switzerland.

After the war's conclusion, the Allied command cleared Furtwängler of charges of being a Nazi sympathizer, although the American government did not "denazify" Furtwängler until 1946. In 1949, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra courted the German conductor, but its board of directors quickly withdrew its offer under the heavy and largely unjustified criticism from the orchestra's musicians.

Always welcomed in Europe, Furtwängler enjoyed continued success throughout the region and was responsible for countless recordings, most of which were made after the war. Furtwängler's idiosyncratic approach to the repertoire and spontaneous interpretations were unique to say the least. Furtwängler remained a popular artist and kept a busy schedule conducting throughout Europe until his death in Baden-Baden in 1954. According to his second wife Elisabeth Ackermann, he died a darkened and melancholy man, troubled by the atrocious history his beloved Germany had written.

This Once Upon the Internet “live” performance of Bruckner’s Tragic symphony from August 1951 at the Salzburg Festival is considered by Henry Fogel, a noted Furtwangler expert, inferior to the wartime 1942 account in terms of overall tension, calling the Salzburg performance “soft-grained”. Though analog restorations of historic performances usually fare better than this one, my feeling is that one still has to admire such an incandescent interpretation, so free, expressive, and flexible in phrasing – to borrow from a review I read, it is a “powerful, visionary reading”.

Hope you will agree.

Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no 5 in B flat major, WAB 105
Wiener Philharmoniker
Wilhelm Furtwängler, conducting
Date of Recording: 08/19/1951
Venue: Live Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Downloaded from Public Domain Classic, ca. 2011

Friday, April 11, 2014

Montage # 151 – Verdi: Messa da Requiem

As of  May 9, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:


The second in our « one work montage » series is a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. A few words about the work, and the performance I am sharing with you this week.

It is true that Verdi is best known for his operas, but if you look at his entire catalog of compositions, there are some non-operatic gems: the string quartet in E Minor, several songs and choral works only to name those. Verdi’s Requiem is the composer’s only large-scale work not written for the stage, and it marked a transitory point in Verdi’s life—from the heyday of one wildly successful opera after another into the relatively quiet, twilight years of his older age.

While Verdi officially began working on his Requiem in 1873, a small portion of it had already been composed back in 1868. Operatic great Gioacchino Rossini had just passed away and Verdi took it upon himself to commission a collaborative requiem to honor the composer’s memory. He began the process by providing a Libera me (Deliver me) to the effort. A year later, the Messa per Rossini was complete, with thirteen composers having contributed their work, squabbling and backstabbing all the while. Despite the fact that the composers’ lack of camaraderie meant the piece was ultimately poorly put together, the premier performance was slated for the one year anniversary of Rossini’s death. For one reason or another, for better or for worse, the premiere was canceled and the piece was all but forgotten. More than one hundred years later, in 1988, the Messa per Rossini finally got its moment in the spotlight. Of the thirteen contributing composers, the only familiar name on the program was Verdi’s.

Disappointed with the fate of the mass for Rossini, Verdi kept returning to his Libera me, convinced that it could be put to good use somehow. It took the death of another Italian artistic fixture in 1873 - noted poet, nationalist novelist, and personal hero of Verdi’s, Alessandro Manzoni for him to cast the Libera Me into a new work, which we now know as his Missa da Requiem.

Working diligently, by May of 1874—the first anniversary of Manzoni’s death—the Verdi Requiem was complete and ready to premiere. The piece was debuted most reverently on May 22, 1874 in the cathedral of Saint Mark in Milan, and later at La Scala. . The Verdi Requiem met with continued success on a long, European tour, with one of the pinnacle performances taking place in Albert Hall, exactly one year after the premier of the piece. For this concert, Verdi himself led a chorus of over a thousand and a one hundred forty piece orchestra.

There are few notable differences between the layout of Verdi’s Requiem and that of the typical requiem mass. It consists of the Introit & Kyrie, the ten-part Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) sequence, the Offeratory, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, the Communion and, of course, the Libera me sequence. Verdi did leave out the oft-used Gloria.

The music of the Requiem is characterized by wild undulations. The composer moves from sparse, otherworldly vocals to brass-heavy inescapable brimstone and fire, and back again. Throughout, he uses the terrifying theme of the Dies irae to remind the listener of their inevitable mortality and judgment, all the while relying on wavering chromaticism to leave a sense of the composer’s own unresolved spiritual questions. 

While the Verdi Requiem has its unmistakably operatic moments, it is a work of far-reaching spiritual and emotional magnitude that at once pushed the religious music envelope and gave new meaning to the phrase “to each his own,” as evidenced by its cross-denominational/cross-cultural longevity and popularity.

Some of our greatest singers and conductors have recorded Verdi's Requiem, and Claudio Abbado has done so at least three times, leading different orchestras and vocal forces. This performance was recorded during public performances in Berlin commemorating the centenary of Verdi's death (25 & 27 January 2001). Ailing even them from the cancer that ultimately claimed him a few weeks ago, Abbado shows just how much this work meant to him in the circumstances. He captures the score's devotional spirit as well as its dramatic power -- and, of course, the Berlin Philharmonic's burnished sound seems tailor-made for this piece.

The soloist quartet of Daniela Barcellona, Angela Gheorghiu, Roberto Alagna and Julian Konstantinov joins Abbado, his orchestra and the combined forces of the Swedish Radio Chorus and Eric Ericson Chamber Choir. Not surprisingly, this performance received a Grammy nomination for the 2002 Best Choral Performance.

I think you will love this music too!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Montage # 150 – Mahler’s Third Symphony

As of  May 2nd, 2014, this montage will no longer be available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address:


Here we are, at montage number 150.

In a rare convergence of events, this montage is also the beginning of a four-part thematic arc simply called “One-Work Montages”. As the title suggests, all the montages in this series feature a single work. This isn’t something unusual in these pages – our Podcast Vault selection for April – the Berlioz Requiem – is one such example, and so was our Christmas montage of the Nutcracker.

When we hit a major milestone, I usually don’t feel limited to my usual 90 minute ceiling for montages – so I thought I’d go all-out today, and pick what I think is the longest work in my collection – Leonard Bernstein leading a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3.

For the longest time, this Symphony held the distinction of being in the Guinness Book of World Records. The reason? Of all the symphonies in the active classical music repertoire, this is by far the longest, with an average performance time that routinely crosses the 100-minute barrier. Other works, including Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder", exceed this; but in the symphonic realm, this record stood until the mid-70’s when it was overtaken by Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony.

Every conceivable single kind of human, natural, physical, and spiritual emotion that has ever existed can be found in this gargantuan six-movement work, which incorporates material not only from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" song cycle, but also the Night Wanderer's Song of Nietzsche's "Also Sprach Zarathustra". The first movement alone, with a normal duration of a little more than thirty minutes, sometimes forty, forms Part One of the symphony. Part Two consists of the other five movements and has a duration of about sixty to seventy minutes.

As with each of his “Wunderhorn” symphonies, Mahler provided a programme to explain the narrative of the piece. In its simplest form, the program consists of a title for each of the six movements:

1."Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In"
2."What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me"
3."What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me"
4."What Man Tells Me"
5."What the Angels Tell Me"
6."What Love Tells Me"

Today’s recording of the Mahler Third – like many of Leonard Bernstein’s recording projects for Deutsche Grammophon - was made before a live audience at Lincoln Center in August 1986. Because of Bernstein's typically immense conducting and (arguably) ultra-slow tempos, it is also perhaps the single longest recording of this symphony, clocking in at close to 106 minutes, from the portentous horn-dominated opening bars to the tension-releasing conclusion in D Major.

Bernstein marshals seemingly everything he knows about conducting into this performance. He is ably assisted by the legendary German mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, the New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Boys Choir in this endeavor, along with contributions from posthorn soloist Philip Smith, trombonist Joseph Alessi, and violinist and concertmaster Glenn Dichterow.

I think you will love this music too!